Possibly one of the most demanding and high profile of jobs in the theme parks is that of the VIP Hosts. If your the Cast Member taking a sporting hero or a film star around the Magic Kingdom then in the eyes of the world you must be a step apart.
In Paris the majority of the VIP guide team were made up from the ranks of the Guest Relations team and when needed they are supplemented with experienced Cast Members from around the resort who had been put forward by their management team. In the end though being selected for the role was as much about your face fitting as passing the training.
I got into doing tours through a friend in management who needed a hand with a bit of a challenge. I had done the training and perhaps as importantly I was a big English chap who had a reputation for being able to follow the rules and stand his ground when needed. The television ‘talking head’ who was bringing their friends over for the weekend had a bad reputation to live up to. I spent two hellish days playing sheepdog to three loud and self important individuals who delighted in shouting “What don’t we do? - we don’t do queue!” - they had been given a ‘’Backdoor Pass’’ - it was a nightmare.
VIP’s in Disneyland Paris got special treatment based on a multitude of factors but it comes down to Guest Safety. If having a famous face in a queue line for an attraction would cause the line to stop, or any Guests to be put in any form of danger by their fellow Guests trying to get to the VIP’s then the answer is simple - take the VIP’s out of the queue line. Hence the famous ‘Backdoor Pass’.
If you were deemed important for Disney to look after you but you weren’t likely to cause problems for other Guests then you lined up with the rest of the world. Then if you were a ‘face’ but maybe just in your own country then maybe you’d get a backdoor but only for the biggest attractions or where you really needed to use it for safety reasons - known as a digressional backdoor. Finally if your face was on every television around the world, on the back of every serial packet then you got the holy grail a full ‘Backdoor Pass’ to all attractions. Simple.
There is of course an exception to any rule. During the summer months Paris is filled with large Arabian royal families doing the tour of Europe, protocol - and the retinue of heavies - meant the families got special full ‘Backdoor Pass’ treatment too. These tours could be challenging but the upside was that they tipped well, and in the Arabian culture it would have been very rude to refuse… honest.
Over the years of doing ‘Royal’ tours I lost count how many of them I must have done, including the fateful one where I found myself looking onto the face of an Arabian matriarch who’s gold trimmed veil had come undone on Space Mountain - the ultimate taboo.
On the other hand there was the day a very senior prince of one of the gulf states entrusted his two teenage daughters to my care whilst he sat in the shade with his family eating ice cream. Both daughters were in western dress, and both were very beautiful, a fact which didn’t go unnoticed by the local boys. While we were waiting for a place to become available on a roller coaster two local boys started hitting on them.
Seeing two clearly Arab girls they started flirting in their native north african arabic dialects. Being well brought up young women form the gulf states they didn’t understand a word. Whilst my attention was on getting us places on the attraction, the boys were getting wound up by their lack of romantic success. As they put it, who were these girls to ignore them? What did they have that made them so special? Well, I pointed out, if they turned around they’d see. The size of the bodyguard who’d come to see what was going on persuaded the boys that it was time to leave. I swear to this day that you could hear the gaseous fear leaving the boys as they ran.
An good example of the Guest safety issue came on June 11, 1998 the day after the opening match of the FIFA Football (Soccer) World Cup finals in Paris. The opening match was between the Scottish and Brazilian national squads on the previous evening - sad to say the broken hearted Scottish fans to be seen everywhere around the resort the next morning. In fact, I’d spent an hour that morning in City Hall consoling the kilted fans.
At ten o’clock my beeper went off announcing an unexpected VIP tour - the Brazilian national soccer squad players, wives, girlfriends, press and hangers on. In all there were around fifty people in the group. Four other guides and I reported for duty.
So we have a couple of hundred heart broken Scots, fifty ‘official’ Brazilians and, to make the day fun, a few hundred Brazilian teenagers who had been sent over as a special trip to see their team win the opening match. To put the cherry on the cake, the world’s press and paparazzi were there too; all of them in the Magic Kingdom together. At this point I must confess, I am not a sports fan and I had no idea who my group of three players, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Bebeto were, the worlds press and the Brazilian fans knew though.
The first thing they wanted to do when they arrived at the resort a couple of hours later was eat. Walt’s Restaurant half way down Main St was reserved and off we all went. It took more than half an hour to get between the main gate and Walt’s, Mobbing fans and press were everywhere, Disney security had to block the doors to the restaurant when we’d finally got in and after lunch we had to leave through the kitchen, it was that bad.
I think we got the Brazilians on all of three attractions that day and getting in turned out to be the easy part. The only way we got out of Phantom Manor was to be physically rescued by the Scots fans who waded in to stop us from being crushed against the railings by the weight of the South American fans and press. It was the most stressful, scary day of my Disney life. Thank the Disney gods for the ‘Backdoor Pass’, if we’d tried even to do one queue line I hate to think what could have happened.
In my time, I did many different tours with many different people. Some were public or press events, others were private family trips. Out of respect I still don’t talk much about the second group but I think it is fair enough to talk about the bits that made it into the public eye.
I took a super rich family to take over a whole store to do their gift shopping; I looked after a group of twenty or so Zulu chiefs who only wanted to sample the fine dining; I spent a time trying not to notice the VIP I was meeting at their hotel room hadn’t dressed yet but invited me in to meet the kids anyway. There were crowned heads of state, athletes and Olympians, and a chart-topping pop star or two, no end of minor celebs who were more famous in there own mind than in reality. But, the one who was stopped most and asked most for her autograph was a gardener.
Those of you who have BBC America or the real thing in the UK will know Charlie Dimmock, the red haired, surprise star of the BBC’s Ground Force show. The lady signed one hundred and three autographs - I counted - in two days, all of it with good grace and a smile. What a star!
One big perk of the Gold VIP host badge is that you were able, and for many VIP’s expected, to join their group for lunch or dinner in the park or hotel restaurants. With Ms Dimmock that meant a hotdog and fries in the Sports Bar watching a rugby match - happy day! Dining with VIP’s could sometimes lead to complications though.
There was a lunch given for invited celebrity Guests for a press launch of some new thing. My Guest’s child decided to leave the table and play hide and seek, being the good Cast Member I went to fetch the escapee before they disappeared into the kitchens. I rounded a corner into the service set-up area to find a very famous actor hiding from his equally famous partner so that he could drink his wine from the bottle having publicly sworn off the drink. Smile politely. Collect wayward child. Return the child to journalist parents… hope for the best.
The hardest part of the job though was the occasional disappointment when you meet a hero and they don’t live up to the image you held of them. It only happened once or twice but it was enough. On the other side of the same coin, helping Roy Disney into a special event when the security on the door didn’t recognise him or his gold VIP pass, well that was just fun! Nice guy by the way!
Doing the VIP thing was fun, don’t get me wrong it was often monotonous in a same attractions different day kind of way but it was an honour, and you really did get to meet the most interesting people.
Those were the days - endless summers... and a whole lot of hard work.